Racism is a serious threat to public health, the head of the Centers for Disease Control declared recently. The federal agency was a little late to a conclusion long backed by streams of research and other medical groups. The American Public Health Association says there are more than 170 municipalities that have embraced the concept.
But the endorsement of the country’s top public health agency is significant in what it can mean for the direction of research dollars and the focus on health strategies in this country — and in whose life experiences matter. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky also unveiled a new web portal focused on racism and health to show the agency is taking the issue seriously.
Racism dating back to slavery has battered millions of Black bodies and minds. People of other races — including Asians undergoing racial attacks during COVID-19 — are also victim to the long-term damage caused by racism. Racial and ethnic minority populations experience higher rates of poor health and disease, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma and heart disease, when compared to white Americans, according to CDC data. Then there’s the stress, trauma and mental anguish dealing with racial bias on a daily basis brings. The life expectancy among Black/African Americans is four years lower than that of white Americans — and we can blame racism as part of the problem.
We’ve seen the disparity play out during the pandemic as the rates of death and infection among people of color outpace that of white Americans. But to really get an understanding on the toll systemic racism plays on health, just look at police killings in a country where African Americans die at higher rates than other races at the hands of law enforcement. We are reminded too often.
It’s what makes us fearful of getting stopped for a traffic violation because it may turn deadly, even if we did nothing wrong. It’s what makes me worry when my husband is a little late coming home. It’s what makes Black parents teach their sons early on how to act if ever encountered by the police — because they are not always out to protect. Too often we are looked at with immediate suspicion.
During the murder trial of George Floyd in Minnesota, witnesses — visibly still traumatized almost a year later — talked about the grief of watching Floyd die after Officer Derek Chauvin held him down with a knee to his neck for more than nine minutes. They expressed guilt for not being able to help because they were too afraid of what the police might do to them. A whole community traumatized.
Last week we heard the story of Army officer Caron Nazario, who said in a lawsuit he feared for his life after being pulled over by two police officers in Virginia, for a reason that is still not entirely clear. “I’m honestly afraid to get out,” Nazario is heard on video saying to the officers who have weapons drawn as they ask him to get out of his vehicle. “Yeah, you should be,” one officer said. Even a man trained for war has a fear of the cops.
Then there’s the story of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man fatally shot on a week ago in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, by a white officer who told her bosses she mistook her pistol for her stun gun. Once again a traffic stop turned deadly. A punishment that didn’t fit the alleged crime. A so-called mistake that took a person’s life. Have we learned nothing from the death of Floyd?
Black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police, and with each death the mental health of the community left behind is harmed, according to 2018 research published in The Lancet from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Boston University School of Public Health. The researchers compared the number of poor mental health days experienced by Black Americans surveyed after a police killing of an unarmed person to that of Black Americans living in the same state surveyed before that event.
They found police killings could contribute 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person every year, or 55 million more poor mental health days every year among African Americans. Compare that to diabetes, which is responsible for an estimated 75 million poor mental health days among Black Americans. The toll of bias in policing is heavy.
The CDC in its acknowledgment of the role of racism on health is only formalizing what generations of African Americans live every day. Time will tell if the institutional change that is needed relieve that health toll will actually happen. We wish them well. Many of us, however, aren’t too optimistic. If video cameras and eyewitness accounts haven’t halted police killings, I’m not sure what will.